Actors who hold forth about their "process"—the devices that they employ to keep themselves "in the moment," the way that they summon up tears in a tragic scene by recalling, say, the memory of a pet cat being flattened by a semi—make most people roll their eyes. I eat these revelations up, though, which is why I tune in faithfully to Inside the Actors Studio, the erratic, weirdly compelling celebrity-interview series on the Bravo Network. (The series has been broadcast Wednesday nights at irregular intervals for the last two years; so far, more than 30 shows have aired, and more are in the works.) Discussion of craft gets at something deeply mysterious about acting: how its greatest practitioners can be so recklessly exposed and yet so cunningly detached; how they can interpret and distill and heighten real life while simultaneously thrashing about in it.
Despite its peekaboo title, the show is taped some 30 blocks to the south of The Actors Studio, in a large auditorium of Manhattan's New School for Social Research, and likewise occupies a middle ground between acting-school exhortation and showbiz schmooze. Out in the world, the studio, legendary training ground of Brando, Dean, Clift, and others who changed the face (and voice, and sweat glands) of American film and theater, still has the power to inspire awe; the figure of Lee Strasberg, its late, famously abusive guru, continues to be invoked with what I can only describe as fond shivers. Down at the New School, the Method has a jingle. Catch phrases—"Affective Memory," "Public Solitude," "In The Moment"—pop up on screens and blackboards like Maoist placards. Actor-speak is omnipresent. On what other series could you hear a young actress ask Dennis Hopper, "What do you do between films to keep your instrument open?"
Ordinary talk shows feature stars who are bound contractually to flack their latest movies or TV projects. On Bravo, they have no such obligations. They come in the name of Art. The program's host, James Lipton, introduces them with Osric-like effusiveness, and onto a bare stage they stroll, imperious but oddly vulnerable. They are here to discuss their craft—but first, a gauntlet must be run, for Professor Lipton has prepared. He holds a stack of index cards so thick that it's a wonder he can read them all in the allotted hour, let alone elicit responses. Like Ralph Edwards of This Is Your Life (only windier), Lipton intones to his subjects where they were born and what their early days were like. They compliment him on his research. He prompts them for factoids he already knows, then jumps to his next index card. Should something surprising pop out of their mouths, he does a Jack Benny take in the direction of his audience, composed in part of students he'll be grading. When he mentions the actors' credits, he seems less fired up by individual performances than by awards or nominations that attended them.
Nerdily obtrusive as all this is, personality bleeds through. Here is one of the world's great actresses, Jessica Lange, who almost never turns up on television, discussing "sensory work" and the emotions she attaches to sounds and scents: "a screen door banging, the smell of the lake," and music (especially strings) as a way into "the soul of the character." Of a scene in Rob Roy in which she's brutally raped, Lange speaks of working "sensually," moment to moment, of responding to the feel of the table, the rustle of the clothes, the way the rapist's hair felt on her skin. The interview is choppy (the editor cuts away at the precise instant that she seems on the verge of saying something interesting), but Lange's insistence on specifics throws light on the source of her poetry: She is at once the dreamiest and most grounded of actresses.
The presence of students brings out subterranean impulses in some performers, and when Lipton gets out of their way—or when they elbow him out of their way—Inside the Actors Studio acquires a macabre fascination. Alec Baldwin, an actor whose ego can block his immersion in roles (he wants you to register how bright he is), has never seemed more "in the moment" than when he's playing ... Alec Baldwin. A whiplash comedian and mimic (as he has proved on Saturday Night Live), he is, in his element, a demagogue, the charismatic teacher we all loved and feared: part anti-establishment goad (his depiction of Strasberg and company as German fascists determined to "strip you of all your hang-ups, give your soul a colonic"), part Messianic orator (a speech on the sacred importance of What We Do that has the New School folks ready to hoist him on their shoulders and carry him to Congress).
The fun in watching actors speak on acting lies in spotting where talent and personality converge and throw off sparks. In Baldwin, it's in the impulse to seduce. In Matthew Broderick, it's in the play between lighthearted showmanship and guilt. Broderick worries that he relies too much on comic tricks, yet can't resist doing his sterling impressions of Brando, Sean Connery, and Christopher Walken (soon—I can't wait!—to be a guest on this series). Addressing the Method throws Broderick's real gifts into relief: He's a clown with a bad conscience, endearingly self-conscious. The spitfire Holly Hunter talks of trying to steer a course between the Method and more stylized, hyperbolic forms of characterization in a way that nicely sums up the yin and yang of her career. (It would be good to have a truly surreal, post-Method riffer such as Nicolas Cage weigh in here.) The only disappointment, aside from an hour wasted with Neil Simon, has been Paul Newman, who kicked off the series with an interview so mild and self-effacing that it left little beyond the twinkle of a star.
That's not surprising, since what hobbles the show is chiefly its view of acting triumphs seen through the prism of Oscar, Emmy, and Tony. (At The Actors Studio, a place where finished productions were rare, process was valued for its own strenuous sake.) Perhaps Newman held back because he knew instinctively that what fueled the studio in its heyday was its aura of hallowed privacy. It was the height of Freudianism, of fetishistic self-plumbing, when what you dredged up from the bowels of your psyche seemed less important than the visible cost of doing so. On Inside the Actors Studio, Dennis Hopper can allow himself to do Strasberg's teachings as shtick because Hopper has devolved into a hambone, a windup Method mannerist, whereas Newman has kept something in reserve. To put it another way, what you do to keep your instrument open should not be divulged in public.